Retail Workers’ Health Has Been Abandoned By The Government


The term ‘essential worker’ is something many of us have become more than familiar with during the COVID-19 pandemic, encompassing anybody unable to stop working in public spaces due to their crucial jobs. Within this category falls retail workers. Those who work in supermarkets or pharmacies have continued to go into work every day for the last year, protected only by a mask and the occasional bit of plexiglass. Described by many as a thankless role, they deal with the whims and, more often, the wrath of the general public. Our retail workers are looked down on and perceived as unskilled and unworthy of merit by those in ‘real’ jobs. 

But these essential workers have continued on, while we sit at home on furlough or in our makeshift offices. However, now non-essential retail is back and the public has rushed out in droves. Queues for Primark stretched halfway down the street as people desperately searched for the perfect outfit, followed by a few hours in their local beer garden; it’s a pretty picture for the consumer! Retail workers, unfortunately, see the opposite. Thousands of people returning into a space which they cannot escape from, with no more protection than before and an even less cautious public.

Well life must go on, you argue, and I completely agree. In fact, I looked forward to returning to my retail job as it represented some sliver of normality. But I was terrified of the amount of people I was about to come into contact with, especially in my store as we help repair their tech. Customers try to hand me uncleaned devices, while a child goes round touching every single iPad out on display, without any hand sanitizer used. In particular, those who have been vaccinated seem to take offence when I take precaution handling their devices. “I’ve had the jab, don’t worry,” a kind old man tells me. I carefully remind him that I have not and neither has a single one of my coworkers. It is simply not possible to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in retail spaces, therefore, more protection needs to be afforded to retail workers. 

As we all know by now, the only true protection is the vaccine. Unfortunately, hospitality and retail workers have not been offered a priority vaccine, despite being one of the most likely occupations to contract COVID-19 due to close proximity working environments. According to the Office for National Statistics only 16% of sales and retail assistants are 55+. A third of retail workers are under 25 years-old, so will be among the last to receive the vaccine. 

A petition was raised on the UK government website to offer priority access to retail workers, gaining over 45,000 signatures, but the government decided against the motion. The Department of Health and Social Care addressed the petition stating that they “identified age as being the biggest determining factor to increased mortality” and therefore would not be extending priority to these key workers. They went on to “thank all the key workers in retail for the incredible work that they have been doing throughout the pandemic”. Much like the NHS clap initiative, what good are thanks when young adults must continue to sacrifice their long-term health?

While reducing the mortality rate is important and it is completely understandable that care workers and the elderly received the vaccine first, we are now past that point. To continue offering the vaccine on the basis of age may make sense on paper, but if all the over 50s are vaccinated, most of whom are still working from home, it won’t make a difference. This is something that ultimately affects us all because those who work in retail have to constantly interact with customers; if that customer is also not vaccinated, we perpetuate the problem. This isn’t even taking into account the fact that retail workers are real people who have family and friends they will be interacting with for the first time in over a year.

A survey by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers found that almost two-thirds of shop workers had been verbally abused while at work, and some had even been physically assaulted during the pandemic. Many found that trying to enforce social distancing resulted in receiving said abuse. Personally, I have asked people to wear masks or step back from me only to be met with ridicule or verbal abuse.

So, if we’re unable to enforce social distancing or other forms of COVID-19 protection and denied priority vaccinations, then how can we protect shop assistants? Ultimately, it reveals a lot about how the government views its retail workers: essential in name but thrown to the lions when it comes to actual protection. It will of course take time to vaccinate everyone but if the government wants to help its economy recover, we need to vaccinate those who will be in the firing line. Young people should not be cannon fodder for our economy. 

Words by Danni Scott

This article was published as part of The Indiependent‘s May 2021 magazine edition.

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